Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Water in Mexico

The picture shows a light-colored tinaco in Merida.

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He has led survival skills classes since 1974. He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

I’ve heard it so long that it sounds like some religious mantra:  “Don’t drink the water in Mexico.” 

The meaning is that a visitor to Mexico should not drink the water untreated.  And why is that?  One explanation that I used to hear back in the 1970s when I first visited Mexico was that, while every place has its own bacteria and organisms in their water, one will get used to the organisms in their water after a while.  And supposedly, this also meant that native Mexicans could drink their municipal tap from the water without concern. When I went to language school in Mexico, I always boiled my water or added water purification tablet to the tap water, or purchased bottled water.  Back then, I never thought about asking native Mexicans if they drank their water out of the tap.

More recently, having visited the Yucatan region several times, I asked some of the natives about this.  These days bottled water is everywhere, and most of the people whose homes I stayed in  purchased all their water and did not drink from the tap. When I asked whether or not they’d get sick by drinking water out of their tap without purifying it, they shrugged and said they didn’t know. They buy their water.

Finally,  I met someone who seemed to know a thing about the Mexican water situation.  I asked Julia, who was an American who married a Mexican man and now calls the Yucatan region her home where she and her husband run a farm.

“Do you drink from the tap directly?” I asked Julia.

“No, though I’m not afraid to,” she responded. “If I’m out in the fields and I’m thirsty, I will drink from the hose and I don’t get sick.  But usually, we buy purified and filtered water and they deliver it to our home.”

Julia went on to explain that the tap water is used directly for washing, brushing teeth, irrigation, etc.

“When people say not to drink the water in Merida (Yucatan), I don’t believe the reason is that the water has bad bacteria.  I believe it’s because the water here is very high in minerals and calcium, etc. And it’s those minerals that might cause sickness if you’re not used to it,” explained Julia.

I asked Julia about the people living in all the small villages where they could not afford to buy water. “I don’t know what they do,” responded Julia.

“However,” added Julia, “I’ve been told that in 20 years or so, you won’t be able to drink the water in the Yucatan region because it will be so polluted.”  Julia pointed out that all the water in Yucatan comes from underground, and that the soil is very porous.  She adds that everyone uses septic systems in Yucatan, and there is no sewer system (like in most parts of the U.S.) where the waste water is treated before it is discharged into the soil or water.  Although the local politicians all talk about installing a sewer system after each flood, Julia doesn’t think that will ever happen because of the immensity of such a project.

“Because the soil is so porous, when chemicals are used, they go directly into the ground water,” she says.

“So, because there is no sewer system, there is flooding after every major storm, and everyone blames the mayor and they elect a new mayor who makes new promises, and then it rains again and floods again because nothing was done.”

I concluded that it was a good thing for me to buy my water, or purify it, whenever I travel.  And it’s not wise to judge the water of such as large country as Mexico with one yardstick because the “water situation” of any country is vastly more complex than what I’ve presented here.  Unfortunately, we should be suspect of most tap water and most open sources of water, wherever we are.

I asked Julia about the black tanks on nearly everyone’s roof in most parts of Mexico. “Those are called tinacos,” Julia told me, which my dictionary told me simply means “water tank.”

In the United States, people often let their water run a bit so it starts to cool off.  However, due to the lack of pressurized water in Mexico, most homes and buildings have large water tanks – tinacos – on their roofs. These then deliver the water by gravity as needed.  But since these are traditionally black, the coolest water comes out first and then the water gets hotter as you let the tap run because the water was heated by the sun.  Now you can find tinacos white or light-colored so that the water is not heated so much by the sun.

[Did  you have any comments or questions about this story? I'd love to hear from you!]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"The Winds Erase Your Footprints" -- a book by Shiyowin Miller

Shiyowin Miller, who had been adopted by Luther Standing Bear (author of "My People the Sioux" and other books) interviewed her best friend to write this true story of the harsh life in the Navajo lands during the 1930s. It's a wonderfully-told story, written mostly during the 1950s and ‘60s. Shiyowin died in 1983, and when Shiyo’s daughter, Dolores (my wife) showed me the manuscript in the late 1990s, I was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe it had not been published.To me, it was like reading a Tony Hillerman novel, except it was true!

Everyone said that the book accurately depicted life on the Rez during that time, mixed in with some accounts of Navajo witchcraft.  With some editing, Dolores and I got the book published in 2002 by Naturegraph Press, which features many Native American titles.  If you do an internet search with the book's title, you'll see some of the reviews that have been published about this book. 

The following excerpts from THE WINDS ERASE YOUR FOOTPRINTS are Copyright  and may not be re-printed without permission of the publisher.

from chapter 3: Pentz's Trading Post

Juanita stood, head forward, her hair long and black in the sunlight; she shook it, the drops of water flying. She ran her fingers through it, the pale, yellow shreds of fiber falling lightly to the ground. Luciano was washing his head now, in water that his mother had prepared. Juanita began to comb her hair carefully, the comb snagging and tangling in the still-wet strands. She stopped and disentangled the combings, rolling them into a little ball. The wind caught it and tumbled it over and over across the ground.

"Ah-yeeee!" Shimah exclaimed and went running after the ball of combings. She brought it back and placed it carefully in the fire, watching as the flames consumed it, talking rapidly to her son. I am guilty of some small breach of custom, Juanita thought, and then was surprised at the gravity of her husbands' face. He sat back on his heels, his hair dripping unheeded.

"You must always burn your combings," he told her seriously.

"My mother says never to let any of your hair escape like that."

"I'm sorry, Lu," she began. "It was a bit untidy. But out here in the open I thought the wind would carry it away."

"That's it: the wind might . . ." He stopped abruptly.

Juanita was puzzled. It was such a little thing for him to get upset about, and she had said she was
sorry. "Is there some tabu connected with hair-combings?" she asked gently, trying to smooth the
troubled look from his face. "If I knew it I'd observe it--you know I would." Shimah stood by gauging the conversation by their voice tones. Luciano was still disturbed. "It isn't exactly a tabu, but just don't be careless." It wasn't like her husband to speak so. He'd always been patient about explaining even small things. She turned away to hide the hurt.

Shimah plucked at her sleeve, speaking gently, soothingly, as though to erase the hurt, the alarm.

"Tell my daughter-in-law to give me her jewelry so that I can put it into the soaproot suds. That will be good for the silver and the turquoise."

Juanita resolved not to mention the incident of the hair-combing again. Lu was moody, preoccupied with looking for a job. It wasn't anything important, only puzzling, and it wasn't worth a misunderstanding if she never found out. There was so much she didn't know, it would take forever to explain in detail everything she asked.       

from Chapter 5: Wild Duck Dinner

Wounded Head greeted them with warm words, but his face remained impassive--cold. His son
extended his hand for a limp handclasp. Juanita and Luciano were given a comfortable place to sit at the back of the hoghan, but Juanita wasn't comfortable. She was conscious of her hair being disheveled from the race up the canyon; she tried to smooth it, putting one hand to her head unobtrusively. She wished that she had worn a skirt instead of Levis. Somehow she could feel Wounded Head's disapproval without seeing his face.

Luciano was talking to the two men. No, he hadn't as yet gone to work in Albuquerque.

Wounded Head placed his fingertips together with elaborate care. Was it true that in that Western
place, where Luciano had been, there was great opportunity for ambitious young Navajo men?

Luciano misunderstood. Was his son planning to go there?

A thin ghost-like smile passed over Wounded Head's face and was gone. He shook his head.

The stew was ladled into bowls and passed to them. Juanita cooled one of the pieces of meat on her spoon. That didn't look like mutton. She bit into it. Beef! Wounded Head and his family did eat well. Her husband had placed his hat on the bedroll behind him, and now his dark head was bent over the bowl of stew attentively. He looked up long enough to direct a sidelong glance at her when their host got up, took a can of peaches from the cupboard, and opened it with his knife.

The meal finished, they sat back looking into the fire, the men talking leisurely of unimportant things. Wounded Head's wife asked a few questions of Juanita, through Luciano: did she like it here . . . did she miss her own people?

It was a foolish thing, her imagination was overactive, Juanita told herself, but she wanted to get away. The fire was bright, warming; Wounded Head's wife was pleasant; Wounded Head himself seemed almost friendly as he drew Lu into conversation; but it was a strong feeling that Juanita had--as strong as a cold wind--as dark as a dark shadow. She was relieved when Luciano finally arose to go. He thanked them for the good meal and then the blanket over the doorway dropped behind them. She was first in the saddle and started toward the edge of the mesa.

"Not that way," Luciano called. "There's no trail--only rocks."

Juanita turned and followed Luciano as he picked his way down the other side of the mesa. Halfway down the narrow trail, Luciano took off his hat. Holding it at arm's length from him, he shook it carefully. Puffs of yellow dust scattered on the wind.


A fascinating glimpse of Navajo life during the depression through the eyes of one woman. The Winds Erase Your Footprints is available from the School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, for $22, or check the Store  at

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Four Illusions of Money


[Nyerges is the author of several books including “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and “Self-Sufficient Home.”  He has lectured, taught, and led field trips since 1974. He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock,CA 90041]

During the early 1980s, I participated in the monthly WTI Plenary sessions which were held in Highland Park. These were all-day events where participants shared accounts of specific research they had been doing. I had been giving presentations on money-related topics, such as “What is money?,” “What is the Federal Reserve?,” “What is the IMF,” etc.

The money-related lecture that stirred up the greatest emotional response was “The Four Illusions of Money.”  I loosely based by presentation on an article by the same name that appeared in the winter 1979-80 issue of Co-Evolution Quarterly.  The presentation and discussion lasted about two hours, covering many facets and dealing with the comments and objections from the audience.  Here is a condensation of that presentation.

When people are queried, almost everyone says that they do not have enough money, and would like to have more. Furthermore, one of the most commonly-cited reasons given by people who continue to work at a job they dislike is to “make a lot of money.”  The reasons that this is such a ubiquitous goal – to make a lot of money – can be summed up in the four following rationales:

  1. A lot of money will let me be free to do what I want to do.
  2. People with a lot of money command more respect from others.
  3. I need more money for my family.
  4. Money is necessary for my security in old age.

Yes, there are many more such “illusions” that dance around money, but these four seemed to fairly concisely address all the secondary and corollary illusions.

These four statements are illusions about money. That means, these represent false perceptions of the world.  That is to say, when we embrace any or all of these four illusions, we are prevented from seeing the NON-monetary realities about our life and the choices that we make.

So let’s explore these one by one.

A lot of money will let me be free to do what I want to do.

One way to see through this illusion is to make a specific list of all your carefully-considered goals. These can be short-term and long-term goals. These can include travel, projects, achievements, possessions, skills (learning a new language), etc., but the list cannot include money.  Money cannot be a goal. Next, you should examine the list you made and begin to delineate precisely how you can go about achieving that goal.

Yes, of course, money can help accelerate the achievement of the goal.  Still, once  your goals are clearly established in  your own mind – and clearly differentiated from “passing wants” – you can steadily move forward, step by step, toward the achievement of that goal.  Money is incidental to this process, and must not be allowed to determine the choices you make and the steps that you take.

A large part of achieving a goal – perhaps the most important part – is to learn valuable life-enhancing skills that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

And many of the essential steps toward a goal involve working with other people. Working with other people develops strong friendships and relationships, and this requires that you must be – or become – reliable and trustworthy yourself.  This manner of pursuing and achieving goals should represent a true freedom from our enslavement to money, and should open you up to some truly life-enhancing experiences.

Remember, this perspective is offered as an alternative to “going out to make enough money so I can be free to do what I want to do.” 

One of the amazing insights that I gained while sharing this at our seminar was how many people actually had no clearly-defined goals at all. 

People with a lot of money command more respect from others.

This is demonstrably and abundantly false.  There is no reason to believe that people with “a lot” of money automatically command genuine respect (in fact, they don’t), or that people with “a lot” of money command respect because of the money. 

People who invite respect do so because of their personal qualities, talents, character, experience.  It may be the case that these very qualities are the reason a person has been able to earn “a lot” of money.  But money itself is not the basis for real respect.

How do I know this?  Look at what happens to those who claim respect for someone when the money is gone.

And also just try the following experiment for yourself.  Make a list of 25 people whom you respect. These must be people that you know personally and you interact with in some way, not just people that you know about from the TV or newspapers.  Do your best to attempt to “score” how much you respect them, using a system for example of listing each from 1 to 100, 100 being the highest level of respect.  Next, do your best to list the income (or net worth) or each of the individuals on your list.  In cases of genuine respect, yo will rarely find  a correspondence between how much you respect that person and how much money they make.

I need more money for my family.

All too often, people use this fallacy as an excuse for doing something they would rather not do.  This rationale is especially typical of “bread-winners” who work extra hours and on weekends so they can pay for possessions and vacations that they believe their family needs and deserves. 

If you are getting more and more out of touch with your own family members because you are spending more and more time away from them supposedly so you can provide something more for them, then you are falling for this illusion.

It would be far more valuable for everyone if these bread-winners instead spent valuable time with their family members, and finding a way to re-orient the job and financial choices.

Sometimes the most valuable time spent with one’s children is the time  spent to teach and work with them to develop their own businesses. 

As for the myth of “quality time” over “quantity of time,” don’t believe it!  Your notion of “quality time” means very little to young people.  The best way to have quality time is to assure that you have sufficient time together.

Money is necessary for my security in old age.

I had barely spoken these words in my seminar presentation when the groans and loud objections were voiced.  Two men got into an argument over this point before I’d barely gotten started, and I had to tactfully break it up.  Yes, we have a lot of baggage about money, and getting older doesn’t make this any better.

Money is needed in many ways, of course, but personal security, inner and outer, cannot be purchased.

The real security that is most needed by elderly can be enhanced by money, but it can never be built solely upon money.   Inner security arises with the development of deep friendships, and with learning to be flexible and adaptable, for example, and these are not things that are in any way dependant upon money. 

In fact, one of the best ways to “prepare for old age” is to become the type of person – inwardly and outwardly – that other people will want to be around and work with. 

This means being competent, helpful, flexible, honest, moral, curious, always willing to learn and to share, generous, and so on.  And note that none of these virtues are either the intrinsic or exclusive virtues of the wealthy.  

Developing one’s character is clearly one of the best ways to prepare for the calamities that might strike any of us at any age, such as wars, depressions, social chaos, as well as a whole host of personal difficulties.

[A continuation of this discussion of money can be found in Christopher Nyerges’ “Extreme Simplicity,” book available at bookstores, Amazon, and]

Christopher discusses "Tending the Wild" by M. Kat Anderson

Thursday, September 04, 2014

"... Why Americans Love Russians."

A Lesson in Persistence
By Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City,” and 10 other books. He has led wilderness classes since 1974. For information on his books and classes, contact him at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

            Our small group had just finished a wild food class at a picnic area in the Angeles National Forest.  We’d collected wild morels, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, and other greens, and we cooked up a superb four course meal.  We made our fire the old-fashioned way, using a hand drill.

            We discussed various survival skills, including how we might survive after a major tsunami.  Finally, we hiked out to the parking area, only to discover that one of our group had forgotten her keys inside her locked car.

            Thus began another “survival exercise.”

            We found a weak clothes hanger in the parking lot, and tried to open the door.  But we couldn’t get a grip on the flat door lock knob.  The knob didn’t have the little bump on the top that makes it easy to grab with a clothes hanger. 

            A passerby decided to try, and he worked the driver’s side window. Another passerby found a heavier coat hanger in his car trunk and began to try again on the passenger side.  It was easy enough to get the wire into the car, but it was hard to manipulate it onto the little protruding flat button. 

            Three Russian men, who had been picnicking down by the river with their families, saw the action and came over to the locked car.  They brought a flat aluminum tent stake with them, and then proceeded to use it like a slim jim.  I spoke with the one Russian who had some mastery of English.  He was the shortest of the group, with a large grin, and nearly bald.  He smiled as he told me that they could do it.

            The three of them spoke loudly and animatedly about what they were about to do, and then one slipped the aluminum bar into the door siding, hoping to engage the linkage from the latch to the knob, and open the door.  They tried this on the outside, and then into the inside of the door, and they were unable to capture the linkage.  The short Russian explained that the linkage was probably in some sort of internal cover.  They then moved over the drivers side, trying once again to grab the linkage.  This went on for about 20 minutes without success.

            A Japanese passerby watched for awhile, and then politely explained that it might be possible to open a Toyota door if someone had another Toyota key.  He explained how he has many times opened Toyota doors, by taking any Toyota key and jiggling it a certain way in the keyhole. Someone else produced a Toyota key, and 10 minutes of jiggling did not open the door.

            All this time the two coat hangers had been passed to at least five different individuals who each tried to open the door.  The doors remained locked.

            The three Russians persisted with one method after another to enter the car.  It was obviously a challenge to them, and they showed no signs of frustration or desire to quit.  It was a puzzle to be solved, an obstacle to be overcome.  Failure was not an option.
            They attempted to grab the linkage, but it didn’t work.  They managed to push a button inside the car which should have opened the door. It didn’t  They actually grabbed the inside latch, and managed to pull it outward, but could not leverage enough to open the door.  They attempted to go into the outside door handle, and through the trunk key hole.  No success.

            These three casually-dressed men constantly spoke in Russian amongst themselves as they moved around the car trying each method.  We could not tell if they were arguing or problem-solving.  But clearly, at this moment, all that mattered was getting into the car.

            A teenager walked up with backwards hat and pants falling down.   He walked with an arrogance towards the car.  One observer yelled out, “I’ve got my money on the kid!”   The teenager took the clothes hanger and worked on the driver’s side for all of five minutes before quitting in defeat.  The Russians persisted.

            I had someone drive the car’s owner up out of the canyon so she could get coverage on her cell phone and call emergency road service for a locksmith.  I waited, as the Russians continued, and one after another man would step up to the car and try his hand and opening the door.  They each looked like the types of guys you’d see in a police line-up, so you’d think they could open the door. But none of them succeeded.

            All along, the Russians continued, discussing each aspect of their task amongst themselves, as they tried tactic after tactic.

            By now, about 55 minutes had elapsed and perhaps 20 individuals had tried to open to locked door.  A tall fourth Russian, who’d been down by the river with his family, came over and joined the other three. The tall Russian didn’t say very much, but he carefully examined the situation.  He took the stiff wire clothes hanger, and began making a series of very careful bends and angles as the other three Russians animatedly spoke among themselves about what the forth man was doing.

            The tall Russian quietly and carefully slipped the wire into the car, and managed to slip the end of it between the knob and the glass, and then exerting just the right amount of tension in the right direction, he freed the knob and the door was open.  The small crowd cheered in that parking lot in the Angeles National Forest, and everyone was shaking hands with the Russians.

            With the broadest possible grin, the short Russians said to me, “This is why Americans love Russians.”  Then they disappeared back down to their families and I drove the car out of the canyon to where the owner was waiting, with no emergency road service in sight.

            Before we departed, three of us discussed what had just happened, and the value of “urban” survival skills –such as locksmithing.  We also discussed those Russians, and their unique character of not quitting easily, when all the “average Americans” gave up easily.  And though they all wore obviously American clothes with obvious makers’ mark such as Nike and Tomy Hilfinger, they had a certain nitty-gritty quality about themselves that told me they’d be far more likely to survive in an emergency – be it urban or in the wilderness –than any of the polite, proper, and nice people. 

            It’s hard to say with precision what the short Russian meant by his statement “that’s why Americans love  Russians,” but we certainly admired their persistence and willingness to help someone else with no promise of any “reward” but a handshake.  Those are good character traits that we could use more of.